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from The Crypt: The Official Archives, by Digby Diehl. Designed
by David Kaestle & Rick DeMonico (St. Martin's Press; 256 pages;
trade paperback; US: $19.95, Canada : $27.99)
comic book in 1950, today Tales from the Crypt and its Crypt Keeper are trademarks whose value exceeds their initial medium,
much as Disney's Mickey Mouse surpasses the value of his cartoons. And if Mickey means amiable family entertainment, the Crypt Keeper signifies
a particular kind of horror tale: one combining brevity, gore, black humor,
and moral irony.
from the Crypt is also a multimedia property. Digby Diehl
touches most bases along its history, beginning with the origin of comics
books, a marriage between newspaper comic strips and pulp fiction. In 1896, Richard F. Outcault created The Yellow Kid,
a comedic strip of cartoons about ... a yellow kid (allowing its publisher
to showcase a newly invented, bright yellow ink, a favorite practice of
tabloid yellow journalists). Until the late 1920s all cartoon strips
were comedic, hence, a comic strip.
Max Gaines conceived of reprinting comic strips into pulp books, making
him the Father of the Comic Book. In 1945, his partners at Action
Comics bought him out and he founded Educational Comics, publishing titles
such as Picture Stories from the Bible and Bouncy
Bunny in the Friendly Forest. He died in a 1947 boating accident,
saving a child's life while perhaps sacrificing his own.
grew up hating and avoiding comics because they had represented Max, a
critical and demanding father. Now Bill's mother insisted that he
run EC. He did, changing EC from Educational to Entertaining Comics,
and hiring Al Feldstein to draw an Archie clone, Going
Steady With Peggy. But Bill soon dropped the idea of cloning
successful trends, a standard publishing practice then (and now?), and
created what he called his New Trend titles.
EC's New Trend horror and crime comics (Tales from
the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt
of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, Shock
SuspenStories) informs much of Diehl's book, but there is much else. We read of Weird Science and Weird
Fantasy, Bill's sci-fi comics tolerated out of love since they never
achieved the success of their horror siblings; the GhouLunatics (Crypt
Keeper, Vault Keeper, Old Witch); Harvey Kurtzman's distaste for horror,
his meticulous attention to military detail in his beloved EC war comics
(Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline
Combat), and his creation of, and defection from, MAD; EC's plagiarism
Bradbury's "What The Dog Dragged In," leading to a long, congenial
working relationship with Bradbury (but who later requested that his name
not be put on covers, as he worried that being adapted by the comics hurt
his authorial reputation); and the cloning of the New Trend, so that by
1953 about 150 competing horror titles were being published, today mostly
on each EC artist includes bios and samples of his unique style. Al Feldstein, who wrote and edited most of the New Trend, demanded that
each artist have his own signature style. Bill Gaines encouraged
it by instituting an "Artist of the Issue" kudos page, a respect rarely
accorded by other publishers.
horror and crime titles all folded in 1954, due to public outcry against
comic book sex and violence. Psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham of
the New York Department of Hospitals and Harlem's Lafargue Clinic led the
fight. Powerful enemies against EC included gossip columnist Walter
Winchell, waging a vendetta against EC business manager Lyle Stuart (whose
book had revealed the "seamier side of Winchell's private life"); Senator
Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn) of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile
Delinquency and a presidential hopeful; and EC's competitors, particularly
Archie Comics's John Goldwater and DC's Jack Liebowitz.
and Veep of the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), Goldwater
and Liebowitz prohibited the words "horror, terror, crime, and weird" for
a comic book to earn the CMAA's new seal of approval, required by distributors. EC's strength was its horror and crime titles, unlike its competitors. Ironically, Bill Gaines had called the meeting at which the CMAA was formed.
recruited support from "women's groups and religious organizations," vilifying
horror and crime comics for their "detailed descriptions of all kinds of
felonies, torture, sadism, attempted rape, flagellation" and portraying
women "in a smutty, unwholesome way, with emphasis on half-bare and exaggerated
sex characteristics." He decried all horror and crime comics, but
EC had the most to lose. Ironically, EC was rare among publishers
diluting its horror with humor. The GhouLunatics' wry commentaries
distanced readers from the suffering characters.
political hero was New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who vetoed "numerous
bills outlawing horror comics." But though attempts at state censorship
failed, bad press, public pressure, and boycotts discouraged distributors
and retailers from carrying EC. Bill Gaines summarized, "Magazines
that do not get onto the newsstand do not sell."
requested permission to testify before Kefauver. In his statement
(reprinted by Diehl) Gaines says, "I do not believe that anything that
has ever been written can make a child hostile, over-aggressive, or delinquent." Here he was disingenuous, or at least contradictory. Gaines believed
in comics' power to influence youth, periodically publishing what he called
preachies (tales condemning racism, anti-Semitism, drugs, etc.), usually
in Shock SuspenStories. And if art can
influence for good, it follows that it can influence for ill.
should not have been: are violent comics potentially harmful? Tobacco,
marijuana, airplanes, cars, guns -- and yes, art and ideas -- are all potentially
harmful. To users, to third parties, to children. The proper
question is: Do we chose to live and raise children in a society that assumes
the risks of liberty, or do we wish a society cocooned, safe, and inoffensive,
hypersensitive to the sensibilities of all?
Diehl makes no connection, Wertham began his campaign in 1948 and Bradbury
451 in 1950. One wonders what influence the psychiatrist had
on the author. For the society in Fahrenheit
451 is a democracy, one in which whatever book offends any group is
banned, until none are left. Unlike 1984's
obvious state totalitarian target, Fahrenheit
451 reveals that people can discard their freedom by choice.
EC so often demonstrated in its pages, you can't keep the dead down. The Crypt Keeper lived on. In fanzines, in Russ Cochran's hardcover
reprints (published in black & white so as to display the artists'
meticulous ink lines), in the Amicus
films, in the HBO
series (Diehl includes a 93-episode guide covering the first seven
seasons), in the more
recent films, in the Tales
from the Cryptkeeper cartoon. All covered, if only a page. There are a few errors (remarkably, Boris Karloff is referred to as William
Henry Platt). Thankfully, there's an index, albeit incomplete. No reference to Karloff under any name.
are the Amicus film novelizations by Jack
Oleck. Although pictured in the collectibles section, there's no
information on its making. I miss it because it was both my introduction
to Tales from the Crypt (being underage for
and my first "adult" book. To boomers, Tales
from the Crypt is a comic book. To Xers, an HBO
series. To those born in between,
the Crypt Keeper is Ralph Richardson, seen on the back of Oleck's novelization.
book reprints four "classic" stories and all 105 EC horror and crime covers
(nine per page). Extensively researched, generously illustrated. If you have a serious interest in Tales from the
Crypt, you'll want this
Review copyright by Thomas